In the 1987 stand-up film Eddie Murphy Raw, the comic went long on the differences between men and women and how hard it is to stay monogamous. To prove his point, Murphy told a story about a friend who had cheated on his partner — the woman even caught him dead to rights walking out of the other woman’s house. But when she confronted him about the infidelity, he didn’t panic — he just calmly denied it: “Wasn’t me.” The angrier she got — absolutely certain she saw what she did — the more he just nonchalantly responded, “Wasn’t me.” Finally, his blanket denials wore her down: “Maybe it wasn’t you…”
Raw has a whole routine on the fact that men can’t help themselves — they’ve got to have sex, they’ve got to cheat. Doesn’t matter how much you love your wife or your girlfriend. “There’s no such thing as a loyal man,” Murphy declared. Lots of men would refute that characterization. But one decided there was a song in it.
On February 3, 2001, Shaggy’s “It Wasn’t Me” landed at No. 1 on the Billboard charts. Even if you can’t remember the name of the guy who performed the song, you know the song — or, more accurately, you know the chorus hook. You can do it in your head right now: Wasn’t me… Wasn’t me… Wasn’t me. Over the last two decades, “It Wasn’t Me” just keeps bouncing back into our lives, and it’s returned this weekend for the Super Bowl, where it’s featured in a Cheetos commercial.
In the ad, Ashton Kutcher wants to know why his wife Mila Kunis is eating all his Cheetos. She insists it wasn’t her. He’s got her dead to rights, yet she swears it wasn’t her. It’s a lame spot — Shaggy actually shows up to sing modified lyrics that address this quirky Cheetos controversy that’s tearing this couple apart — although “It Wasn’t Me” is so good that it (mostly) survives Kutcher and Kunis’ terrible performance. But what’s funny is how Shaggy’s hit has become a shorthand for getting caught cheating, whether it’s with another woman or snack food. Even the guys who have never cheated respond to the song because it’s a fantasy scenario of what it would be like to cheat. Some men don’t have affairs because they’re scared of the repercussions. “It Wasn’t Me” doesn’t make them sound so bad.
The singer born Orville Richard Burrell didn’t have aspirations of a music career as a kid. Born in Jamaica and moving to New York when he was 18, he joined the Marines because he was afraid of how his life might end up if he didn’t. “I grew up in Brooklyn and was into everything I shouldn’t,” he told the Boston Globe in 2019. He had buddies who were DJs, and he messed around with writing a little, but he didn’t see a future in it. “I saw my friends getting locked up for stuff I was doing, I needed to get out,” Shaggy said. “So I went down to Flatbush Junction and signed up.”
Shaggy served during the Gulf War of the early 1990s, gaining a lot of life experience in short order. “The street taught me how to fire a gun. The military taught me how to balance a checkbook,” he said in that Globe interview. “The military prepared me for life. I remember being bitten by sand fleas and I couldn’t move. The military taught me how to be comfortable outside my comfort zone.”
After four years, he returned to civilian life, hoping to get serious about music. In 1993, he had a massive hit in the U.K. with “Oh Carolina,” a reggae-flavored update of a 1950s ska song. The remake emphasized Shaggy’s good-time groove and ingratiating voice, which could be rough and smooth at the same time. His next big success came with 1995’s Boombastic, which featured the title track and a cover of the laidback 1970s number “In the Summertime.” At a moment in which hip-hop was first becoming firmly entrenched in the mainstream, Shaggy’s mixture of rapping and reggae was very much in vogue. (After all, Snow’s “Informer” and Ini Kamoze’s “Here Comes the Hotstepper” had both been bestsellers.) As Shaggy told Billboard in 2001, “A reggae guy can rock a hip-hop beat and vice versa, so they work hand in hand. The cultures are pretty much similar, and their popularity came about the same way — from the street.”
But after Boombastic’s follow-up, Midnite Lover, tanked, his label Virgin cut him loose, probaby figuring that the hip-hop/reggae trend had ended. “They dropped me and Maxi Priest at the same time and they signed Beenie Man,” Shaggy recalled. “At that point, I had sold two platinum albums and had many hits. Beenie Man hadn’t done nearly as well. That hurt.”
Undeterred, he went to work on a new album, which is when Shaggy started thinking about that Raw routine. “I just thought it was great,” he said last summer. “It was a great conflict and so relatable to everyone’s lives. In writing songs to this day, I always write with a subject matter that is relatable to an average person. ‘It Wasn’t Me’ is either you’re banging or someone’s banging or you wish you were banging. It’s a part of everyday life. And it just made sense.”
Shaggy was collaborating with a writer named RikRok, who worked with him on this concept for a cheating song. “[Producer Shaun Pizzonia] had the beat. I came up with the chorus melody and Shaggy came up with the verses,” RikRok would say later. “It was a typical routine. You have a beat playing in a minidisc player all day long and eat Jamaican beef patties. You talk a little, make a couple of jokes and write a line here or there and eat some more patties.”
“It Wasn’t Me” was never meant to feature RikRok, who sings the song’s infectious mea-culpa chorus. (“His main forte was as a writer,” Shaggy said in The Billboard Book of Number 1 Hits.) But RikRok had recorded the temp vocal for the demo, which Shaggy tried to shop around to other artists — except there weren’t any takers. “So I took it back,” Shaggy recalled, “and Ricky’s voice was already on it.”
Shaggy had gotten a new deal with MCA, which had been impressed with a track he’d done with Janet Jackson for the How Stella Got Her Groove Back soundtrack, “Luv Me, Luv Me.” Armed with a record contract, he put out Hot Shot (including a spruced-up version of “It Wasn’t Me” featuring a re-recorded vocal from RikRok) in the summer of 2000. Initially, MCA wasn’t impressed with “It Wasn’t Me,” opting to focus on other tracks as possible singles, but an enterprising Hawaii DJ, Pablo Sato, found the song on Napster and was immediately captivated. “When you listen to the record, it’s a one-listen record,” Sato said in a recent VICE mini-documentary about “It Wasn’t Me.” “It’s one of those records where you’re like, ‘Damn.’ I found myself singing the damn song halfway through the song.”
He started playing it on the radio, getting an immediate response from local listeners. One of them, Tommy Austin, was a program director out of Portland, Oregon, who was on vacation in Hawaii. He couldn’t wait to play it when he got back to his station. “As soon as we got off the plane, I put it on the radio, and it blew up just as big for us as [it had in Hawaii],” Austin said. “It’s so melodic and over the top, and everybody lives through it vicariously.”
Both Hot Shot and “It Wasn’t Me” — as well as an additional single, “Angel” — went to No. 1. But, in hindsight, the success of “It Wasn’t Me’s” PG-rated sexual frankness shouldn’t have been that surprising. A few years earlier, the R&B trio Next had produced a chart-topper with “Too Close,” a smoothed-out ode to grindin’ on the dance floor while trying to keep your partner from realizing you have a boner. Full of groan-worthy puns — “You’re making it hard for me” — and coy come-ons, “Too Close” found a novel way to talk about sex in a song that, on its surface, sounded pretty harmless. “It Wasn’t Me” took it to the next level: Like “Too Close,” it was a short story set to music, with RikRok telling Shaggy that his girl caught him with the next-door neighbor. Shaggy’s advice? “Say it wasn’t you.”
But she caught me on the counter
Saw me bangin’ on the sofa
I even had her in the shower
She even caught me on camera
She saw the marks on my shoulder
Heard the words that I told her
Heard the screams gettin’ louder
She stayed until it was over
RikRok played the role of the slick lover-man, his vocals high and romantic, while Shaggy’s gruff patois added a little grit to the tale — even if some listeners had a hard time deciphering his vocals. (“You have to have that authenticity of dancehall,” Shaggy said recently about his “It Wasn’t Me” vocals. “That’s the culture on the song there itself, me going in there raw patois, and having you play it over a couple times just to get what I’m saying.”) The juxtaposition of their two voices was a sweet-and-sour mix, which made the ear crave the funny/soaring chorus that laid out RikRok’s dilemma…
Honey came in and she caught me red-handed
Creepin’ with the girl next door
Picture this, we were both butt-naked
Bangin’ on the bathroom floor
How could I forget that I had
Given her an extra key?
All this time she was standin’ there
She never took her eyes off me
There are lots of ways to describe being found out in the midst of a tryst. But “Picture this, we were both butt-naked / Bangin’ on the bathroom floor” is probably the cleverest — and also the cutest. In Raw, Murphy’s description of men as dogs craving sex was ugly and animalistic, but “It Wasn’t Me” exuded an innocence about its infidelity that almost made you feel bad for RikRok. He didn’t mean to let this happen — it just did. (Why did he let his girlfriend have that extra key??!) There’s nothing carnal or nasty about RikRok’s indiscretion — instead of calling it “screwing” or “fucking,” he simply refers to his act as “bangin’.” Dude’s practically a gentleman.
The deceptively vanilla presentation — breezy melody, bouncy beat — meshed seamlessly with the comic set-up of a guy who’s busted by his girl and tries to lie through his teeth to get out of it. “It Wasn’t Me” was more farce than tragedy or moral outrage — it was like a Seinfeld episode that never happened. (Who doubts that George would have tried this exact tactic if he was caught in a similar situation?) Infidelity brings with it lots of heartache, but Shaggy’s song was surprisingly and winningly lighthearted about the whole thing. Cheating is bad but, hey, we’ve all been there, right?
Not that Shaggy was totally cool with the idea that “It Wasn’t Me” somehow advocated being unfaithful. “The thing became such a damn club banger that nobody got to the end of the record,” he complained to Rolling Stone. “The bridge section explains: ‘Tell her that I’m sorry for the pain that I’ve caused / You may think that you’re a player / But you’re completely lost.’ Nobody got to that part of the song, bro. By the time they got to that part, they were going into the next song or they started the record over. Nobody really paid attention to that part, and it just sounded like a cheating song.”
Technically, that’s true. But anybody with two ears and a brain understood that the song’s coda was obligatory — the musical equivalent of those advisories before Jackass episodes not to attempt what was being done on the show. The whole point of “It Wasn’t Me” was indulging in the vicarious thrill of some other dude’s dilemma of juggling his girl and his side piece. Lots of songs brag about being a player — someone so irresistible that the women can’t keep their hands off him. “It Wasn’t Me” was an incredible (and more believable) humblebrag: I was having this affair with my hot neighbor, and I got busted — oh, woe is me, what do I do?
The wonderfully cheesy video only drove home this point. In the clip, RikRok tries to stay a step ahead of the women he’s betrayed, eventually resulting (inexplicably) in an action sequence involving him jumping off a bridge onto a moving truck in order to make his getaway. Part Mission: Impossible, part Penthouse Forum, the video flashed a lot of skin, but it felt all-ages enough not to offend. Both the song and the clip exuded the good cheer and sunny sexiness that had drawn Shaggy to music in the first place.
“I kind of did it just for chicks for a while,” he once said about his days starting out. “I’ve always liked music and I realized when I was in the lunchroom and I would vibe, I would get chicks. When I started making the reggae records I got into clubs for free, I drank for free and I left with the hottest chick. When you’re 18 or 19 that’s all that’s on your mind — getting laid. It wasn’t even about the money. I had no need for a lot of money at that point. It was probably the best time in my life. It was all for the passion and the love.”
Hot Shot had been Shaggy’s attempt to revitalize his career. “I didn’t need to convince myself that Shaggy was dope,” he told Vibe at the time. “I needed to convince the industry that Shaggy was dope. After the situation with Virgin, everybody thought that was it: ‘Okay, he’s just like every other reggae artist. The juice ran out.’” But while that album and “It Wasn’t Me” proved his doubters wrong, he’d never again have such a major musical moment. Shaggy kept making records — including one with Sting — but as the years went by, he ran the risk of being remembered solely for a few bygone hits.
Even worse — and more bizarre — was the fact that his big smash started getting associated with criminal defendants who tried denying that it was them on tape committing their bad acts. This so-called Shaggy Defense was popularized by the R. Kelly child pornography trial, in which the disgraced singer claimed that it wasn’t him on video doing terrible things to underage girls. (The Slate writer who coined “the Shaggy Defense,” Josh Levin, was later taken aback when judges began using the phrase in their rulings.) But especially in our Fake News age, when politicians and other crooks are trying to wave away the obvious evidence of their misdeeds, “It Wasn’t Me” has developed this weird aftertaste. What started off as a relatively harmless denial — “Wasn’t me” — now feels like it’s everywhere, and far more insidious. Brett Kavanaugh accused of sexual assault? Wasn’t me. The Obama administration’s deadly drone program? It’s classified — wasn’t me.
Of course, it’s not fair to lay all that at the feet of Shaggy’s rather wholesome ode to sleeping around. “It Wasn’t Me” is just a catchy, silly song. But the hit’s ubiquity in the culture does speak to something elemental about our nature — how we relish the gossip of other people’s messy love lives without necessarily wanting to engage in infidelity ourselves. Cheating and lying take a lot of work — plus, we figure we’re gonna get caught — so it’s probably not worth it. But “It Wasn’t Me” lets you imagine all the illicit excitement of an affair — you get to feel what it’s like to be unfaithful without being a bad person yourself.
This week, Shaggy recalled the unexpected consequence of “It Wasn’t Me” storming up the charts. “When we put the record out, we were getting a lot of hate from women’s groups and whatnot,” Shaggy said. “But after a while when we looked at the sales, it was predominantly women that bought the record.” I’m not sure how he could have deduced that — it might be the sort of thing an artist just says in order to provide cover from criticism that could come his way — but if it was true, it would suggest an interesting twist in the scenario that “It Wasn’t Me” lays out. In the song, it’s the guy who sleeps around. In the video, it’s the guy who’s a dog who’s incurred the wrath of his women. But if women love the song, too, it’s because they know that that dynamic can be easily reversed.
Even Eddie Murphy understood that. He talks about it in Raw. “If you keep breaking this woman’s heart … she eventually will go out and fuck someone else,” he warns during the film. After all, it’s not like men have a monopoly on cheating fantasies.